By Patrick Rall
The 2014 Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona International Speedway was a big deal for the modern SRT Viper race teams as it marks their return to the famous endurance race after a 13 year hiatus. The race was also a big deal for General Motors as the 2014 Rolex 24 brought about the on-track introduction of the new Chevrolet Corvette C7R race cars. Of course, it was also a big deal for both camps similarly since this marked a major battle between the two American race teams on their home soil so in addition to wanting to win – both GM and SRT wanted very badly to beat their cross-town rivals. The Rolex 24 is the first battle of what will be a year long war between the new Corvette C7R race car and the SRT Viper GTS-R and as that battle came to an end yesterday afternoon…the Viper staked its claim as the greater of the two American endurance racers.
The Viper’s weekend started strong as the SRT teams were among the fastest cars through the first and second round of practice sessions but the new Chevrolet Corvette C7R race cars were equally strong in practice. However, when the #91 SRT Viper GTS-R came out and set the best time for the GTLM class – claiming the pole position for the 24 hour race along with the 3rd starting spot in class while one of the Corvette teams couldn’t even get the car together for qualifying – things were looking very good for Team SRT.
The 2014 Rolex 24 started exactly how Team SRT and Viper racing fans around the world had hoped with the #91 Viper GTS-R holding the lead regularly during the first few hours of racing. Through pit stops and driver changes, both of the Vipers spent time at the front of the GTLM field but as the race neared its 10th hour – things went downhill fast for the Vipers. First, Jonathon Bomarito reported that his #91 Viper was having steering problems and due to that, he had to go into the garage area for the team to diagnose the problem. It was found that one of the power steering lines had burst and the crew scrambled to fix the power steering system while the #93 Viper continued to run near the front of the field along with both of the Corvettes. Just 15 minutes after coming into the garage area, the crew for the #91 Viper sent Bomarito back onto the track but around the same time, there was a crash on the road course portion of the track that gathered up the #93 Viper and forced that Viper into the pits repeatedly for repairs to the front end of the race car.
Once the steering system of the #91 Viper was fixed and the #93 Viper had been covered in a hefty dose of duct tape to fix the damaged body panels, the two cars were back in action but the damage had been done. The #91 Viper found itself 12 laps behind the class leader while the #93 Viper had fallen 6 laps off of the class pace. Throughout the period of time where the Vipers were having their problems, both Corvette C7R teams continued to run near the front of the class until the #3 Corvette (that won the 2013 ALMS driver’s championship) was forced to retire due to a severe overheating issue around the 13 hour mark.
The #4 Corvette C7R seemed to be one of the favorites just past the halfway point but the SRT Viper team wasn’t done. The #91 car spent the dark hours working its way up through the field over and over again, cutting from 12 laps down to 10 laps down and when I woke up on Sunday morning the #91 Viper was only 8 laps behind the class leader. As the sun came up, the #91 Viper continued to cut away at the lap lead of the Porsche 911, BMW Z4 and Corvette C7R and while the #93 car wasn’t quite as fast – that team was also slowing regaining position.
With around 3 hours left in the race, the Vipers had claimed to 4th and 5th in the class behind the Porsche, BMW and Corvette. The #91 Viper had gotten within 4 laps of the class leader and was racing for position with the #4 Corvette when the Chevy ran into gearbox issues that forced it into the pits for repairs. This put the #91 Viper comfortably in a 3rd place spot that wouldn’t change through the end of the race. Unfortunately, while running in the top 5, the #93 ran into drivetrain issues that forced it into the garage area for repairs with a little under an hour left. This late problem pushed the #93 Viper back to 6th in class and 27th overall – 13 laps behind the #4 Corvette in 5th. The #91 Viper finished 9 laps ahead of the #4 Corvette.
The SRT Viper GTS-R wasn’t able to claim the class win but the #91 Viper was very clearly the best car in the GTLM class all day. The trio of drivers was able to go from 12 laps down to just 4 laps down in the second half of the race for a very strong finish of 3rd in class and 12th overall. That means that the #91 Viper passed the GTLM class cars that finished ahead of it 8 times so if not for the mechanical failure – the #91 Viper could have handed out a serious beating. However, mechanical issues are what make endurance racing so tricky and that power steering line literally caused Team SRT the win.
Luckily, even with the mechanical problems to the #91 Viper and a mix of mechanical issues and a crash for the #93 Viper – Team SRT was able to beat out Team Corvette in their first major meeting of 2014. Just as was the case back in 2000 when the Team Oreca Viper took the overall victory – the Viper beat the Corvette in the Rolex 24.